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Exhibition in Focus: Aesthetic Labour

7 Nov

I was reading my favourite magazine, Grazia, last week, and one of their articles both annoyed me, and made me think about this exhibition. It was a light-hearted piece called something like ‘What Your Work Wardrobe Says About You’. The advice was basically: wear a smart skirt suit – you’ll look like you mean business and your boss will like you; wear something a bit fashionable – other women in the office will like you; wear something really fashionable – you won’t be taken seriously; wear something comfortable – you’ll look like you don’t care about work.

High heels

Image: bamalibrarylady, flickr.com

It was this last case study which really irritated me, because it contained the tip ‘brogues are a key point of our Autumn wardrobe, but don’t wear flats every day – you’ll look like you don’t care about work’. Really? Obviously there are jobs which require both sexes to look smart and professional when they meet the public, but surely we’re beyond the stage where women are still judged on their ability to wear uncomfortable shoes?* Here at The Women’s Library we have a fairly relaxed dress code, and often that means me wearing what my boyfriend terms my ‘Riot Grrrl outfit’: woolly jumper, short dress, coloured tights, and big clompy comfortable boots. It definitely doesn’t affect my ability to sit typing at a computer or meet with my colleagues, and in fact being warm, relaxed, and not rubbing my aching feet probably makes me a more productive employee.

The All Work and Low Pay exhibition features a section on Aesthetic Labour. To quote from the University of Warwick link, in academic terms this means when ’employees’ …appearance [is] turned into commodities and re-shaped to fit their employers’ notions of what is desirable’. Basically, it’s when an employer tells an employee what they should wear, how they should style or colour their hair, what jewellery they’re allowed, and even what they must weigh. This goes further than wearing an identifying uniform (eg a police officer or a supermarket cashier) or having rules for health reasons (eg catering workers tying back long hair), to making judgements about what a person’s appearance shows about their personality and work ethic. This has been, and continues to be, an important issue in the history of women and work.

The Woman's Dress For Success Book

Image: The Women's Library, London Metropolitan University

The exhibition explores this issue in depth, including a 1960s Air Hostess doll (a profession notorious until recently for having strict aesthetic standards for female employees), an article about Melanie Stark who was dismissed from a Harrods concession for refusing to wear full make-up, and testimonies from women who received discrimination from employers for wearing Islamic dress. It also shows that issues surrounding clothes in the workplace can sometimes be positive ones: Dress for Success is an international charity that supports vulnerable women entering the job market by offering them advice on self-presentation and gifts of business clothes. Clients acknowledge that improving their appearance  dramatically improves their self-confidence. It’s also the name of an (unconnected) series of books which do look a bit amusingly dated now, but do contain some interesting advice gained from analysing responses from hundreds of women.

*NB I confess that in my first week of employment here, I decided to brave wearing my very smart grey pixie boots with a little (around 2 inch) heel. The result? I fell over at lunchtime, grazed my knee, and had to come to my new colleagues requesting a plaster with bleeding knee and ripped tights. I accept that many women have better deportment than me (with the balance of a six year old) and don’t find heels quite such a challenge…

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